Thursday, 15 December 2016

Pushing Boulders

I am sitting and reflecting on the title of Athol Williams' autobiography. Athol is an uncle of two pupils at our school, and he has recently been collaborating with staff and pupils, particularly in writing poetry. 
Leading a school over the past twenty years has involved many boulders; from pushing them over the hill, to going around them or climbing over them. Education in South Africa is not for the feint hearted! If you want to provide the very best education to as many of South Africa's children as possible, the odds are stacked against you! Not only because of finance and funding issues, but also the belief by many citizens today that the right to education does not come with any responsibilities. An admission denial, for example, is seen as a personal affront, and is very often taken to education officials, including the Minister of Education. Luckily these admission appeals are taken seriously and, because our school always follows the rules regarding admissions, we have never been told to accept any child we have previously turned away. 
Other 'boulders' besides admissions are assessment criteria changing annually, overloaded curriculum requirements, personal family problems spilling over into unreasonable demands or anger against teachers or the school, and a lack of support from departmental officials when 'the chips are down'!
One positive thing about facing all these boulders over the years, is that boulders make you stronger and braver every time you overcome one! This means that I am much braver today than I was in 1997. Principalship requires huge bravery because one is often left standing alone....either by parents, officials or staff. If this happens today, I know it is temporary and as long as I keep focussed on the goal and the children's best interests, the boulder will eventually be surmounted. In years gone by I would have 'sweated' about the boulder and often blamed myself for the boulder being in the way of progress.
I will never be arrogant about overcoming school boulders - each boulder needs to be treated as important, to be dissected until the very best outcome can be achieved for everybody concerned. Boulders make us stronger as human beings, they make us value the calm and quiet times in between boulders. So, consider every boulder as an opportunity to become braver, as a gift or opportunity to rethink the things you stand certainly will be stronger afterwards!

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Teaching Empathy for Animals is Essential

Grade 4s feeding the ducklings at break
While sitting in the Company Gardens having breakfast on a Saturday morning, I watched a 7 year old boy chasing an Egyptian goose with a broken wing. Every time the poor goose hopped out of his reach, he ran to persecute the goose some more. When the goose flew up onto a statue, he started chasing the pigeons instead. While he created havoc amongst the bird life outside, his parents were happily ensconced in the warm cafe. 
I used my 'principal' voice to make him stop, and as I did so, I felt indignation, not only that his parents obviously hadn't taught him empathy for animals, but also towards his school! He obviously was at a school that didn't teach the 'soft' curriculum!

Imaan taming budgies for the library
Ethan and Sarah feeding Cornflake
I then realised, all over again, how important it is that Pinelands North has animals all over the school, and that we subtly teach children very day about how we should care for animals. When the children watch me speaking firmly but gently to Peroni, my puppy, they learn that it unnecessary to shout, or smack, or 'hurt'. When children watch Uncle De Villiers diligently clean swimming ponds, food bowls and aviaries, we are subtly telling children that it is important to treat animals in the same way in which we would like to be treated. When we talk to children about not feeding the puppies at school, we are also teaching the children the importance of feeding the right food to animals. When we insist on the classroom budgies being fed before we continue with our school work we are telling children that we should never allow an animal, no matter how big or small, to suffer hunger or thirst. This creation of empathy for animals is a slow, sure process but the difference between children who understand empathy, and those who don't, is wide ranging. A child who understands that animals feel pain will never intentionally hurt an animal. Even when they hurt animals unintentionally, they are devastated. I am always impressed by the child who, when we practise evacuation drill at school, will walk onto the field carrying their class budgie or rat cage - that is a child who forever will empathise with animals. This too, would be a child who could safely be left to their own devices in the Company Gardens.

Monday, 6 June 2016

When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis......

Flying away from home and school on an airplane to China last month, I started reading a book I had bought for my book club. The book When bad things happen in good bikinis by Helen Bailey, covers blog posts she writes after her husband drowned while they were on holiday together. One of the blog posts I read is entitled 'One green bottle'. This post tells of a special bottle of champagne a friend gave her and her husband, and how they kept it instead of drinking it.....there never seemed to be a special enough occasion to drink the champagne! When he dies, she realizes that every day with him was a special occasion - when she finally opens it, she has to throw it away because it has 'died' too. 

 I stopped reading! How many things do we 'save' for another 'better' occasion? Why do we keep lead crystal wine glasses for some time we want to celebrate? Why don't we go up the cable car with our children, just because the wind isn't blowing and the air is warm tonight? Why don't we buy the Lego kit our child wants, just because we can? What if tomorrow doesn't come? My sister-in-law has just been diagnosed with MS this week and she can't see out of one eye.....what if we lose our sight tomorrow? Why didn't I rush to Camps Bay and take photographs of the sunset yesterday when I could see it still with 2 eyes? Don't put off anything that needs to be done today....tomorrow might not bring the same opportunities that today brought....

Friday, 22 April 2016

A cultural eye-opening trip to China....

With Professor Qin, Director of the Confucius Institute
I have just had the privilege of spending 10 days in China, with the compliments of the Confucius Institute at UCT. Pinelands North started teaching Mandarin as an extramural in January 2016, and this term we already have about 70 children in the programme, ranging from grade 3 to 7.This institute provides teachers and workbooks at no cost to those who wish to learn this Chinese language. The purpose of the trip was to take principals of schools where Mandarin was being taught, or where the school had expressed an interest in starting the programme, to both southern and northern China, to be immersed in the culture to better understand the people.
Before this trip, my only experience of the Chinese as a nation was while I travelled overseas, and it wasn’t a positive one! In Turkey and Greece every relic had at least one Chinese lady posing with a selfie stick……and usually for a very long time too while they took several different views of themselves. Also on that overseas trip, when we asked about why there was no kettle in the hotel room, we were told that they aren’t provided in rooms any more because the Chinese boil water for their tea all day. I had also been told that the air in Beijing was so thick with smog that you couldn’t breathe, and that every Chinese person spat in the street all the time….

Our trip started in Guangzhou, a modern city of 16 million people, just north of Hong Kong, and ended in Beijing, the capital city of the north, 10 days later. During the trip we attended 2 schools, 2 universities, and saw many of the best tourist attractions in China, including The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tia He Men Square and the Summer Palace. We met some amazing people along the way, South African and Chinese!
So, herewith some of my cultural learning from the trip……
  • Chinese names are written completely differently from those in the west. The first name is the family or surname, and this name is followed by a middle name taken from the ancestral family tree, followed by the child’s given name. This enables families to inform the ‘world’ of how long their family has been in existence!
  • Because of the congestion in Beijing, not everybody can have a car. If you want to buy a car, you put your name into a lottery, and only if you ‘win’ the lottery can you buy a number plate. And only then can you buy a car! Even when you have a car, you can’t drive to work everyday. Depending on the final number on your number plate, and what day of the week it is, one day of every week you need to leave your car at home because it may not be on the road! Everybody can drive over weekends however!
  • We painted our own fans....
    Chinese sisters learning to take selfies
  • Tea making is very important in Chinese culture. Tea is had without milk and sugar, and with every meal, as well as a social occasion on it’s own. Markets sell lots of different teas made from leaves and flowers, each with their own ‘nose’ and palate. Markets sell tea sets, tea pots too, all beautifully decorated with Chinese writing, traditional flowers and typical scenes.
  • Chinese calligraphy is traditionally done in black with paintbrushes, and is no longer written back to front as was done in the past. The calligrapher ‘signs’ their name with a red seal after writing a poem or motivational message.
  • Chinese food varies from south to north, and is very different from ‘westernized’ Chinese food – initially we found eating noodles, pumpkin and dumplings for breakfast very hard, but when we moved to Beijing and went to ‘tourist’ restaurants, we rejected the usual ‘sweet and sour’ type foods that we think is ‘traditional’ Chinese cuisine. Fish and other seafood is eaten at every meal in the south, but beef, pork, lamb and Peking duck is more common in the north. I loved eating chillis with every meal too! Carbohydrates are seldom eaten, and I didn’t see one fat Chinese person. 
  • Interaction between ‘business’ partners in the Chinese culture is much more formal than in the west. Every meeting is ‘sealed’ with a group photograph to ‘record’ the interaction, and gifts are exchanged as part of the meeting.
  • People in the west imagine that China is still ‘stuck’ in the past but the reality is that Guangzhou has 3 of the 5 tallest buildings in the world, and the most up-to-date library I have ever seen! We were lucky enough to travel from Guangzhou to Beijing on the ‘bullet’ train, which at times travelled at 307km per hour!
  • The history of China is vast – Guangzhou is at least 2200 years old and one of the first destinations on the Silk Road. We heard lovely stories of emperors, hutongs, warriors from Manchuria, how the Chinese developed their writing and how the dragon came into being….all these stories made me want to get home quickly to start reading up on the history as soon as possible!
    Some of the group at Tia He Men Square
  • China no longer has a ‘one child’ policy. When the population started getting older rather than younger, the People’s Party announced that every family could now have 2 children, and I only saw one family that had 3 children.

I am really glad I went to China! I feel that I have opened my perspective and learnt so much about a part of the world I knew little about!

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Teaching children to be inventors

In a study in 1966, 24% of South African children could see themselves as inventors in the future, and of that group almost none of them were girls! I wonder how many children would think that today? I wonder if a larger percentage of the group would be girls? 
Problem solving with grade 3 pupils 
Paul Torrance says that children should be encouraged to invent things from as early as possible, and they should be encouraged to view a career in inventing as a positive option. Alexander Graham Bell was nine years old when he invented a talking doll which ultimately led to him developing the idea for the first telephone. Well known inventors like Bell actually invented things his whole life - his most famous invention is the telephone. We therefore mustn't think that an inventor has to be famous - most inventors invent things all through their lives, and few invent something as far-reaching as a telephone! Young girls need to see a future for themselves in science and in inventing things. This requires an inventive or problem solving mind, and a knowledge of scientific principles which would influence the situation around the problem to be solved. Very few people also realise that almost all inventors had a 'sidekick' - the person who might actually have done most of the technical planning or most of the actual doing to create the invention....remember Mr Watson?
So what do we do in our schools today to encourage children, particularly girls, to be inventors? In the old days inventors were taught drawing, observation and visualisation skills. Certainly the basics of those skills are taught from preschool at most schools. At Pinelands North we teach technology in several different ways to increase the opportunities of learning . This means that while most schools have one or two hours per week of this subject, we focus on Computer Technology, the specific skills needed for woodwork and needlework and on the theory of Technology. Our children also learn art and drama, and these subjects can also be focussed on in the extramural programme too. Communication skills are very important as an inventor because if you cannot communicate what you have invented it still won't be used or patented. 
Orals and projects about real inventors, their careers and their real stories is important for all to hear. The inspiration of people like Edison, Ford and Bell really cannot be underestimated - children love those stories of people solving difficult puzzles after hardship! Children need to know that a problem isn't going to be solved the first time you tackle it so perseverance and 'grit' are required, and often an inventor has to really persevere to sell the idea after the problem has been solved too. The 'new' idea is not going to quickly become a world wide seller immediately.  
Balancing 15 nails on one nail!
The emotional and social behaviours, and thinking skills of very bright children at Pinelands North are developed through our Creative and Talented Programme. The social/emotional  part of the programme encourages children to identify their emotions and learn to deal with the outside world in a positive way. In the development of their thinking, children have been encouraged to choose an inventor, research the inventor's life and then pretend to be the inventor, and give a speech that person might have given. This project was very successful!
An idea we haven't used as yet but intend to, is to ask children to make notes of the problems that are raised over 24 hours by their parents, friends or neighbours. After this they think through the problems, trying to think of solutions to some of them and then invent something to 'fix' the problem.
The truth of the matter is that even in our Creative and Talented Programme, we have more boys than girls, even though we are conscious of the need to identify girls. We see this as an ongoing challenge which needs to be addressed every time we consider adding children to our programme. Maybe we need to encourage more families not to stereotype girls from birth and to give their girl children technical problems to solve at an early age?